After providing all the funding for The Brain from Top to Bottom for over 10 years, the CIHR Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction informed us that because of budget cuts, they were going to be forced to stop sponsoring us as of March 31st, 2013.

We have approached a number of organizations, all of which have recognized the value of our work. But we have not managed to find the funding we need. We must therefore ask our readers for donations so that we can continue updating and adding new content to The Brain from Top to Bottom web site and blog.

Please, rest assured that we are doing our utmost to continue our mission of providing the general public with the best possible information about the brain and neuroscience in the original spirit of the Internet: the desire to share information free of charge and with no adverstising.

Whether your support is moral, financial, or both, thank you from the bottom of our hearts!

Bruno Dubuc, Patrick Robert, Denis Paquet, and Al Daigen

Monday, 25 April 2022
Our brain: neither hardware nor software, but “liveware”!

This week I’d like to tell you about a book by David Eagleman, entitled Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain. This book discusses several subjects related to brain plasticity, which is one of Eagleman’s research areas. In this book, one of Eagleman’s main ideas, which he attempts to conceptualize with the term “livewired”, is that the human brain is a machine that spends its time reconfiguring itself. In contrast, computers are “hardwired” with predefined electronic circuits that run software—computer programs that use this computer hardware to perform mathematical calculations and logic operations. The human mind or human thought has often been erroneously compared to a software program that needs the “hardware” of the human brain to manifest itself. This is a very poor metaphor for many reasons, of which the one cited by Eagleman is not the least.

As he explains, the fine structure of your brain, which is manifested through billions of connections between its neurons, is not fixed. Instead, it varies as you acquire new experiences and learn new things. Every thought you have causes changes in your brain’s overall dynamic activity, which will alter, for example, the efficiency of the synapses (neural connections) involved in this thought. As a result, the “hardware” in your brain is never really the same from one moment to the next! Those changes will be minimal when you simply have a passing thought or memory, but they will be more significant if you experience a traumatic event in childhood, or a moment of great joy with a loved one, or acquire a technical skill through hours and hours of practice. And this is what Eagleman is trying to get at with his coined term “livewired”.

That said, not all parts of the brain have the same degree of plasticity. The primary visual cortex, for example, is highly plastic in the early years of life, as it learns how to make sense of visual patterns. But once it has done so, it will have less need to alter its neural connections in future.

Another important point that Eagleman makes is that the plasticity of the brain’s synapses is not the only source of its ability to change and to make its circuits more efficient. Your synapses change in size, shape and number as you learn things over periods measured in minutes, hours or days. But many other phenomena also come into play, on shorter and longer time scales. In just a few seconds, simple changes can take place in the receptor molecules to which neurotransmitters released into the synapses bind. Over longer periods, of weeks or months, changes can occur in the expression of the genes that code for these receptors or for other proteins involved in synaptic transmission.

To sum all these ideas up, Eagleman compares the human brain to a city. Some changes are happening very rapidly all the time—people walking by, cars driving along. Others take place more slowly: trees are planted, curb extensions are built to make intersections safer, two-way streets are made into one-way streets to calm traffic. Other changes are slower still: old buildings or bridges are demolished to make way for new ones, new subway stations are built. And over a few decades or centuries, the routes of the streets and even the paths of the streams that flow through the city will be altered.

From the Simple to the Complex | Comments Closed

Monday, 4 April 2022
How to avoid our natural tendency to divide the world between “us” and “them”

This week, I’d like to talk about two articles on the work of Robert Sapolsky, a primatologist and neurobiologist who published the superb book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst in 2017. In that book, Sapolsky stylishly and eloquently examined the many factors that have influenced our behaviours from the time of our primate ancestors through to the modern societies of today. He focused especially on our identity behaviours—the ones that make us divide the world into “us” and “them” and that so many politicians now exploit to try to capture our votes. (more…)

From Thought to Language | Comments Closed

Tuesday, 15 March 2022
Exercising in childhood appears to have positive effects throughout life

In the northern hemisphere, spring and summer are finally approaching, and I advise everyone who lives here to take advantage of the increased opportunities to get out in nature for their exercise. Because if there’s one thing that’s been very well established scientifically, it’s that physical exercise has positive effects on all of our bodily functions, including the cognitive ones. I’ve posted about this topic here for example in 2017, so today I’ll keep up the tradition and tell you about a recent study by Toru Ishihara and his team at Kobe University in Japan, about how childhood exercise can maintain and promote cognitive function in later life. (more…)

Body Movement and the Brain | Comments Closed

Monday, 28 February 2022
Mindfulness meditation at school improves sustained attention and cognitive control

Many young people have trouble in focussing on tasks to complete them successfully. Scientists have shown that the mere presence of your cell phone within easy reach can affect your cognitive abilities, which may be part of the reason for attention problems among today’s youth. But the human brain, and especially the young human brain, is highly plastic. And a study published in the journal Human Brain Mapping in September 2020 seems to have proved it once again, by showing that 8 weeks of training in mindfulness meditation improves sustained attention and cognitive control among Grade 6 students. (more…)

The Emergence of Consciousness | Comments Closed

Tuesday, 4 January 2022
The dark side of the scientific-publications business

Today’s post was inspired by an online course about the process and the business of publishing scientific articles. Presented in French by Julie Augustin, a doctoral student in the Department of Biological Science at the Université de Montréal, in March 2021, this course is now available as two 1-hour YouTube videos. The first, La publication scientifique, qu’est-ce que c’est ?, discusses how researchers prepare scientific articles, how these articles are reviewed by the researchers’ peers, and how they are published in scientific journals. Most people who aren’t scientists themselves don’t know much about these processes, but nowadays, when many of us are basing critical health decisions on discussions of such articles in the media, it’s good to learn more about how these articles get produced. (more…)

From the Simple to the Complex | Comments Closed